Years & Years – Night Call
The UK’s Olly Alexander, former frontman and now sole member of Years & Years, has been on a mission. He’s here to make pop fun again. In the post-Lorde era, pop has for the most part dialled down the theatrics and shifted toward a minimalist, writerly approach. This of course was a reaction to the big, oft-chaotic, electronic aesthetic that had shaped pop’s sound from the mid-2000’s, a sonic palette that placed feeling over meaning. Inevitably this bombast receded, giving way to a generation of artists ala-Eilish whose mellow, writerly formula, and sparse minimalist beats blurred the lines between pop and alternative. It’s a methodology that has been consistently lauded, due in part to its perceived authenticity. Like bubblegum before it, dance pop was relegated to the ranks of nonsense, deemed too vapid and insipid when compared to the Melodramas of the world. Though attempts to shift the pop landscape back to the dancefloor have not been uncommon. Dua Lipa and Kylie Minogue immediately come to mind, but they found their groove in the less synthetic beats of disco. And while efforts like The Weeknd’s After Hours and Lady Gaga’s Chromatica relied heavily on retro club sounds, these were fused with high concepts and mostly weighty subject matter. The vapidness, the plasticity if you will, that makes dance pop as addictive as amphetamines, has been in the throes of a comedown.
The real legacy of the form continues in less mainstream capacities however, with a guard of ‘underground’ provocateurs committed to making the brightest, shiniest and loudest thing in the room. Cult status artists like Charli XCX and Grimes form part of this ilk, along with the spawning of genres like hyperpop or “alt-pop”. Alexander lies somewhere in between. Take 2015’s Desire. During a time where most major pop stars had begun embracing the “authentic” direction of the zeitgeist (Gaga had Joanne, Miley had Younger Now), Alexander unleashed this sweaty, throbbing 90’s house adjacent eurodance track with a hook, chorus and lyrical prowess that could rival Lorde. Desire would go on to become a global sleeper hit, presaging the 90’s house revival which peaked on a planet called Chromatica. Yet still, Alexander stayed simmering just below the surface of major pop status. His ambitions have never led him to buy into trends, and he’s stuck to a sonic identity informed by his influences and having his finger squarely on the pulse of his more left-field peers. Simultaneously playing the mainstream while never sacrificing his point of view to mainstream taste, Alexander has arguably been the only pop artist with Top 40 appeal who’s sounded like nothing else on the Top 40. His third effort, Night Call, is unabashed and sparkling dance pop at its finest. It’s the most apparent his mission statement of crafting decadent, euphoria inducing music has ever been. It’s notable that Alexander rewrote this record some twenty songs in, pivoting the direction entirely. It’s a reclamation of creative control that’s evident on the final product which struts, slinks, and explodes across fifteen glossy tracks.
For Night Call, Alexander shakes off any rumination on heartbreak and revenge, instead crafting a record that explores desire and sexuality in rushes of dopamine and scuzzy sensuality. Like the best dance music, Night Call uses the theme of desire to propel its frequencies and inform the pulse of its fantasia. Alexander pulls from funk, French house, and electroclash, formulating a sonic palette that venerates the guiltiest pleasures of the genre. Lyrically, he follows suit. The songwriting is hook-focussed, sharp, and for the most part totally direct. On Muscle, he explores sexual attraction by way of impishness, fantasising about the object of his desire with an innocent grin. “Look at all that muscle,” he notes, making his intentions blatant. On the breathless tech-house of Crave, he melts into the fever of infatuation, lilting against sweaty, sultry synths and a throbbing baseline. Night Call opens with the electro-funk of Consequences, and the French touch that instantly recalls the squelching modular synths of Justice continues into the giddy optimism of Starstruck. Strange and Unusual slithers with the sensuality of Eroitca-era Madonna with its euphoric trip-hop, while on late standout Reflection he plays the lusty romantic, tempting his lover with slow sung possibilities before concluding “we both know it’s not going to happen.” Reflection kicks with an urgent house beat, mixing in motifs from R&B and a dub leaning bass line soaked in delay to set the tone of Alexander’s disparate allure.
Tracks like Sooner Or Later and the title track function on massive, anthemic choruses, the sort that have become rare in contemporary pop but make complete sense in the world of Night Call. The album isn’t without some fluff though. Some tracks lapse into syrupy territory, recalling the paint-by-numbers sound of acts like BTS. Starstruck is guilty of this, as is Night Call. But then there’s the sense that Alexander is aware of this, and may perhaps be making a point. It’s kitsch and campy, excessive and sometimes contrived, as dance pop should be. There are times where this approach is more successful, in particular the disco-cheese of A Second To Midnight perfected by way of a Kylie Minogue cameo. It’s camp perfection; referential yet self-aware, theatrical and tropey yet distinct. Night Call carries with it the history and aura of a specific time in pop music, where hedonism was celebrated and art was made simply in the name of pleasure. It’s the age of feeling like P-Diddy and “rah rah ah ah ah’s,” and it’s unsurprising that Alexander takes his cue from here. The outré energy of that period is echoed in his own identity and creative persona. It’s why he appears as a perfectly airbrushed and chiselled merman on Night Call’s cover. By relishing in the jouissance, queer utopia becomes possible. Alexander seems to be aiming for just that, rewriting pop just as he does classic mythology in his own image, making sure we’re dancing along the way.
See the music video for Crave below.
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